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Ex-Radford University baseball players criticize Karl Kuhn's coaching style
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Ex-Radford University baseball players criticize Karl Kuhn's coaching style

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Former Radford University baseball players say coach Karl Kuhn bullied them about their performance on the field and ridiculed their physical and mental status, with some also saying he physically grabbed teammates by the shirt to make his point about their performance.

Kuhn, who recently began his third school year coaching the Highlanders, denies the ex-players’ allegations. The Radford University administration stands by Kuhn, who had never been a head coach before taking the Highlanders’ reins in August 2019.

According to phone interviews by The Roanoke Times with 11 ex-Radford players who were on the team during the 2019-20 and/or 2020-21 school years, Kuhn created what they described as an atmosphere of mental and verbal abuse that occasionally turned physical. Players also had issues with the amount of fall practice hours. The players asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation or were concerned about how making the allegations could affect their baseball careers at their new schools or their lives in general.

Thirteen members of the 2021 team complained about Kuhn to Radford University deputy athletic director Cory Durand and associate athletic director for compliance Malinda Tasler in an April 21 meeting, according to seven of the 11 ex-players interviewed. Those seven were on the team at the time and were in that meeting. The 13 players at the meeting were speaking on behalf of themselves and four other players who did not attend the meeting.

Players shared their stories of what they characterized as mental, verbal and physical abuse during that April meeting, telling the administration that Kuhn sometimes screams and swears at them if he does not like what a player did in a game or practice. The Roanoke Times began conducting interviews about these allegations in April.

The athletic department said in a written statement that allegations of various forms of abuse are “unfounded and categorically false.”

Kuhn said in a May 12 interview with the Roanoke Times that he “would never put my hands on a young man.”

“I raise my voice, but I’m not a screamer,” Kuhn said. “I’m very passionate.”

A senior on the 2021 team said Kuhn “kind of made me hate my life.”

“He made every day not fun to show up to the field at all,” that player said. “He would scream. … He would say things that you just wouldn’t expect a head coach to say.

“If I had a bad inning, he would bring me into the … bathroom at the end [of the dugout] and grab me by my shirt and literally get up in my face and spit on me, basically. He wouldn’t mean to do it, but in the heat of the moment he would literally spit on you and hold on to your jersey. He did that to me a couple times. I’m not the only one.”

That player said that because of the way Kuhn treated him and others, he turned down the opportunity to return to the Highlanders for the 2021-22 school year for his extra year of eligibility. He said he entered the transfer portal and talked to other schools before deciding this summer to give up baseball.

“I kind of lost my passion just because of kind of what all the [Radford] players had to deal with on a daily basis,” that player said. “The way that things went this year, it ruined my love of the game.”

The player’s mother confirmed that her son was offered the chance to come back for another season on scholarship but declined.

But Durand said last week that none of the 2021 graduating seniors were offered the opportunity to return to the team.

Other ex-players also said Kuhn sometimes grabs a player by the shirt when he yells at him.

“I’ve seen it probably five, six times,” said a freshman on the 2021 team who later entered the transfer portal. “He would grab the player by their jersey and forcefully pull them into the bathroom.”

Kuhn said he has never grabbed anyone by the shirt.

According to a second senior on the 2021 team who opted not to use his extra year of eligibility because he said Kuhn soured him on baseball, there have been numerous accounts of Kuhn pulling players into a bathroom and screaming at them if they made a bad pitch or an error.

“I’ve seen it on many, many occasions,” said a sophomore on the 2021 team who later transferred. “After a bad inning, he’ll pull you in there. You can hear screaming.”

“He’s cussing at you, yelling in your face,” an upperclassman on the 2021 team said.

Radford athletic director Robert Lineburg said he is “100% behind” Kuhn.

“Coach is passionate, and he’s going to coach hard,” Lineburg said May 12 as he and Durand sat with Kuhn for a joint interview with The Roanoke Times.

Durand reiterated two weeks ago that Radford University stands by Kuhn.

Three freshmen on the 2020 team each said he transferred to another school because he disliked playing for Kuhn.

“I loved 99.9% of my school. That 0.1% was him,” one of those players said.

Kuhn, 51, spent 16 years as the pitching coach for the University of Virginia before getting the Radford job. He succeeded Joe Raccuia, who steered Radford for 12 seasons before resigning.

“I’ve been charged with the process of taking over a program, and when you do that, change is inevitable and change is difficult,” Kuhn said in the May interview. “When you either find yourself not able or unwilling to adapt or change, I think there’s going to be resistance.”

But some players said Kuhn does not behave like a typical coach.

“Coaches aren’t supposed to be your best friend, but he kind of took that to an extreme,” said a freshman on the 2020 team who later transferred because he said he disliked Kuhn’s coaching style. “It’s not a good environment when you’re scared … to be around somebody.”

That player said he got tired of being sworn at 10 times a day by Kuhn. He said the constant swearing created a bad environment

Some players allege that Kuhn has body shamed teammates by making insulting comments about their weight. Kuhn denies that allegation.

“He calls people fat, tells them they’re not good enough,” said the second senior on the 2021 team who opted not to use his extra year of eligibility.

Some players also said Kuhn makes jokes about players who have shared their mental health issues with him.

“We’ve brought it up to the administration, too, that he makes jokes about mental health,” said the second senior on the 2021 team who opted not to use his extra year.

Kuhn said he has never made such jokes, and that he once let a player go up in the press box during practice to have a video conference with a psychologist.

In its written statement, the athletic department said the school “is committed to the health and well-being of all student-athletes.”

Durand said in a May 12 interview that Radford officials began monitoring baseball practices at some point last fall and had been to all but three baseball games at that point of the spring.

“We’ve been … side by side with the program over the past year,” Durand said. “We have not experienced any of that [behavior]. Coach is very passionate and he does correct guys when mistakes are made, but we have never seen anything you’re alluding to.

“We are at practices. We are at games. We do not see that. So that makes it pretty easy on our end.”

But administrators did not see everything, said players.

“They weren’t there all the time,” said a freshman on the 2021 team who later entered the transfer portal.

“He would pull me by the shirt when nobody [from the administration] could see that,” said the senior on the 2021 team who had said Kuhn made him hate his life.

Kuhn said, “I don’t get in anybody’s face,” but later in the May interview with The Roanoke Times, he said, “I went to the mound last night and talked to a young man who was about to give in because there was a hole in the dirt by the rubber that he just could not navigate. My meeting to him was right in his face because I care about him. … I’m up on him because I’m passionate.”

Players shared with their families their unhappiness about Kuhn, according to five parents of former players who were interviewed by The Roanoke Times and asked to remain anonymous.

“When my son calls home literally in tears … we were worried about his emotional well-being,” said the parent of a player on the 2020 team.

The parent of a player on the 2021 team said his son later transferred because of how Kuhn swore at and treated the players.

“The culture is not very good there,” that parent said. “[Kuhn] knows baseball for sure. That’s no doubt. But the relationships with players or the lack thereof, … I think he’s very old school. Right or wrong, I think coaches have to step back today and look at the generation they’re coaching and they’re going to have to make some adaptations, and I’m not sure he’s done any of that.”

Practice hours

Players not only complained in the April meeting about how Kuhn spoke to them, but also about Kuhn’s practices.

Under NCAA rules, athletes are limited to no more than 20 hours of athletic-related activities (including practices and games) each week.

But players said in interviews that Kuhn repeatedly broke that rule during the fall of 2019 and again last fall.

In the fall of 2019, some former players said, the team practiced five to six hours a day for six days a week. Kuhn said that was incorrect.

All those hours of practice left some players exhausted, injured or ill, said ex-players.

According to former players, three players went to the hospital in the fall of 2019 because of rhabdomyolysis, a rare illness which is caused by the breakdown of damaged muscle, resulting in the release of muscle cell contents into the bloodstream.

Kuhn said the fall of 2019 marked the first time in his 30-plus years of coaching that any of his players were stricken by rhabdomyolysis, so he was very concerned and became educated on the matter.

Overexertion is one way the muscle damage can happen, which is why some ex-players blame their teammates’ rhabdomyolysis on too much practice.

It is unknown whether there was a medical determination that the players’ illnesses were caused by the practices. But Kuhn noted there are other reasons for the illness. Viral and bacterial infections are among the other reasons.

Practice time was an issue again last fall.

Players said they kept logs of the practice time last fall, and they said Kuhn often had them practice for 30 hours a week last fall — some weeks more than that, some weeks less.

Players informed Radford officials last fall about the practice hours.

The athletic department said in its statement that Radford did self-report a violation to the NCAA last fall in regards to the fall 2020 practice hours. Kuhn and Lineburg said the violation was because players felt like they had to be at practice for optional workouts.

The NCAA did not sanction the university following the self-reported violation, according to Radford’s written statement.

Durand said the violation was what prompted Radford officials to begin attending practices last fall.

Meeting aftermath

Players asked at the April meeting with the administration for the school to investigate their concerns and for Kuhn to step away from coaching during the investigation.

But two days later, Durand told the players from that meeting that the university was sticking by Kuhn.

Lineburg said Radford takes “feedback from student-athletes very seriously.”

“We continue to monitor the program at a high level, with our deputy A.D. in the dugout and our associate A.D. for compliance in the dugout and we have another compliance person that’s in the dugout,” Lineburg said in the May interview. “We stand by the administration’s monitoring.”

On April 29, four of the 13 players from the April 21 meeting were removed from the team by Kuhn, according to three of those four players.

“He told us he didn’t see us having a future in the program here,” one of those players said. “Told us he thought it was best that we need to go ahead and enter the transfer portal.”

That player said the cuts were retaliatory. Kuhn said he released the players but it was not for retaliatory reasons.

Those four players then entered the transfer portal.

After the 2021 season, seven more players entered the portal, according to Radford — four scholarship undergraduates and three who graduated but had an extra year of eligibility.

Only 11 of the 39 players who are on the Radford roster for the new school year were on the team last season. Last season’s roster included seven seniors and two graduate students.

But turnover for various reasons is not unusual, especially in the early years of a coach’s reign. Only 13 of the 48 players on the fall roster at Big South rival Charleston Southern are holdovers from last season. Charleston Southern’s coach is entering just his second year at the school.

Only one of the freshmen from the 2019-20 school year was still on the Radford roster when the 2021 season ended on May 21.

According to Radford, of the 31 players who were on the roster when Kuhn got the job in August 2019, 13 were still on the team as of May 12.

“That’s a pretty good number,” Kuhn said in the May 12 interview.

Ten of the 18 who were no longer on the team as of May 12 had graduated, according to Radford, while seven had transferred and one had remained at Radford as a nonplaying student.

Durand and Kuhn noted that scholarship considerations might have prompted some players to leave. The NCAA decided in March 2020 to give all 2020 spring-sports athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it was up to each school to determine whether or not it had the scholarship money to keep players for an extra year.

“I can’t keep everybody on scholarship and I can’t keep everybody on the team,” Kuhn said two weeks ago. “Maybe that is what really, really made them angry.”

Eight players had entered the portal during or after the 2019-20 school year, according to Radford, including five scholarship players.

Seven players entered the portal during the 2020-21 school year, including four on scholarship, according to Radford. Another scholarship player left the team but remained at the school to graduate.

The Highlanders were 9-8 under Kuhn in the 2020 season before that season was cut short by the pandemic.

The team finished the 2021 season with a mark of 23-23 overall and 17-19 in the Big South.

Lineburg said he is confident Kuhn is the right man to coach the team.

“He’s our coach and we’re excited about the future of Radford baseball,” Lineburg said.

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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